When one man, for whatever reason, has an opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.
– Jacques Yves Cousteau
Safari Team Dig to China Part III was the conclusion (of sorts) to an epic journey—an adventure of grand proportions with one hell of an unattainable goal. Safari Team’s trio, Lillian O’Neil, Blaine Cooper and Jon Oldmeadow—under the alter egos Pipe, Wings & Violet—had been planning their journey since taking part in The Group Group Show in 2008 at VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery. There they displayed cross-sections of the earth, diagrams and maps of an alternative world, machines for digging and plaster effigies of their new personalities. Safari Team Dig to China Part II, exhibited at Seventh Gallery in 2009, documented their explorations through a series of large-scale collages depicting ‘the underworld’, its cavernous hollow filled with massive subterranean lakes and giant monsters. These large posters became banners championing Safari Team and savoured mementos of their tour deep down. In an attempt to further their camaraderie, they set out once again, using these collages as blueprints for a video reconnaissance of the underworld—and so Safari Team Dig to China Part III began.
The video and installation at West Space took form as a large black plastic structure depicting the mouth of a volcano. Erupting with red pleather at its side, this inlet invited the audience within: a request to likewise venture into the unknown. Once inside, the audience was taken on an adventure where a lack of imagination was the only obstacle. Just as Jules Verne’s three protagonists in his A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) departed on their adventure through volcanic tubes, so too Pipe, Wings and Violet set out to reach the centre of the earth and hopefully find their way to China.
The imperfection of Safari Team’s volcano-like structure—its poorly crafted nature, cheap materials and the need to bend down and half crawl into its heart—added a childlike aesthetic that aroused memories of homemade cubbies with sheets thrown over bed posts. It was effortless to fall into the ridiculousness of the story and easy to laugh at the immediately likeable characters, sporting an array of bizarre head wear, looking devices and in one case a wooden leg, as if they had just raided an old aunt’s dress-up box. It’s this amazing childlike imagination that the Safari Team thrives on.
The experience created by Safari Team’s video installation weaves a rich collage of appropriated memories and stories that long ago entered the cultural consciousness of children and adults everywhere. If anyone is a worthy candidate for Safari Team’s creative homage, Jules Verne is one such person. His science fiction stories detailed adventures with space, air and underwater travel far before chartered aircraft and submarines were invented, and well before space travel had even been dreamt of. Verne, like fellow sci-fi legend H.G. Wells, sought to minimise the role of individual heroes and instead created sympathetic protagonists who were often powerless in the face of natural forces, venturing into alternative realities with the impossible expectations of the Industrial Age. Indeed it’s impossible to separate a discussion of adventure and 19th Century science fiction without evoking the context of these authors’ own worlds; worlds they satirised and parodied continuously, creating inspired commentary on evolutionary theory, European Imperialism, and the nature versus culture debate.
Likewise, in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift satirised the social order of the day by using fictional republics to make political statements about the role of the individual in society. This is the perfect context in which to consider the practice of Safari Team—a dedicated collective evoking ideas of nostalgia through the exploration of imaginary alternative worlds. They create their own versions of utopia in order to interrogate our expectations of entertainment, narrative and contemporary art.
Ever since Thomas More’s 1516 novel, Utopia, the word ‘utopia’ has denoted any version of a perfect society. Obviously though, the ideal state in society has no real basis—the term utopia literally translates as ‘no place land’. This suggests that while utopia might be some sort of perfected society, it is ultimately unreachable. In Safari Team Dig to China Part III, the artists present their own utopia that, in a way, finds perfection via its imperfection, revelling in its own faults and offering an alternative world where childhood adventures take over. Since there is no pretension on behalf of the artists that what they have made is either well crafted or ‘real’ in any way, the audience cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of a giant squid attack or bizarrely choreographed robot dance scene.
What is best about Safari Team is that it won’t be beaten by the completely unattainable—the physical impossibility of digging to the centre of the earth only spurs on a narrative driven solely by wonder, escapism and companionship, rather than any conclusion or result. One of the most memorable scenes in the video, borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s film Sunrise (1927) is the picture of a lone character rowing silently across the lakes of hell and guided into a state of limbo. Of course, Safari Team never makes it to China and so the narrative of its journey is also left in limbo, with no solid decision or resolution offered to the audience.
Like More’s socialist utopia—which forgets to concern itself with how to get there, presuming that the power of its own vision is sufficient—Safari Team lets the narrative of its journey dissipate. Burning the effigies of their alter egos in an unorthodox underground offering to the artistic gods, the artists continue with the real aim of the journey: to entertain the audience and have some fun. We can only hope that just like Verne’s adventurers, after a successful escapade of discovering prehistoric animals and natural hazards underground, Safari Team’s members eventually made their way to the surface.
Safari Team’s Dig to China Part III was exhibited at West Space, Melbourne from the 20 August to 12 September, 2009.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 15, Lies, Summer 2009-2010, pp 72 – 73.
Kelly Fliedner has a diverse professional practice as a writer, curator, lecturer, producer and book club master. Her writing is varied, ranging from contemporary and...